Hollywood is a lot like a suburban tot lot, with dozens of energetic, creative, driven and ambitious kids running madly about shouting for attention. Only instead of their parents’ approval, these kids are looking for validation from agents, producers and studios with big checkbooks.
As a fledgling writer or director, how do you break through the din and get the kind of attention you need to launch your career? Beyond renting a billboard on Sunset Blvd. to advertise your copious talents, what tactics are most likely to put you on the industry’s radar? (Note: Renting a billboard on Sunset Blvd. isn’t one of them.)
Obviously, it’s not easy (or else everyone would be doing it). And a strategy that works brilliantly for one person may fail utterly for another. Which is why a combination of efforts is usually recommended.
But if it’s true that you must “make your own luck,” here are 10 proven (and affordable) ways to make your work stand out and get your career off to a running start.
1) Understand the market – and your place in it. Before you do anything, you need a plan. And creating a good plan requires research. What kind of material is Hollywood buying? What kind of films and TV shows are audiences watching? The Internet is rife with industry news and reports from sites like Variety (www.Variety.com) and The Hollywood Reporter (www.HollywoodReporter.com) to Indie Wire (www.indiewire.com) and IMDB (www.imdb.com) – not to mention hundreds of filmmaking blogs. Now determine how you want to be “pigeon-holed” (and you will be), at least to start. Do you want to be known for action, drama or comedy? Studio films, indie films or television? Hollywood is very much like high school, only you get to pick the clique to which you’ll belong.
2) Think Internationally. Today, Hollywood gets more than half its revenue from overseas markets. If you want to get the industry’s attention, come up with a project they can sell in Beijing and Budapest as well as Boston and Bakersfield. This can mean including foreign locations and including major parts for non-American actors.
3) Think Economically. Often, a great way to get Hollywood’s attention to is do more with less. Because studios are loathe to spend big bucks on projects from first-time filmmakers, showing you know how to get major results from tiny investments can get you noticed. For writers, this often means writing small but tight horror films, thrillers or other genre scripts. For directors, digital cameras and modern CGI allow you to create mind-blowing short films on basically lunch money.
4) Acquire/Write a Killer Script. Yes, this seems axiomatic. But if it’s a cliché, then it’s a cliché because it’s true. Great scripts are still so rare that when one surfaces, the town starts talking. What makes a great script great? Although, like snowflakes, no two are exactly the same, they seem to share many attributes. Their stories contain big stakes: Life and death, victory and defeat, love and loss. Characters are sharply defined and as memorable for their bad qualities as for their good ones. Dialogue is terse, character-specific and contains plenty of quotable lines. Plotlines are intelligent, twisty and innovative, taking us into worlds we have never seen before – or at least not seen quite this way. And they don’t “cheat.” Plot holes are minimal. Emotions are played big, but are varied enough to avoid monotony and melodrama. The scripts are cinematic; the telling is highly visual, taking advantage of film’s unique ability to move freely through time and space. Endings are surprising yet inevitable, satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. Sound like a tall order to fill? It is. So take your time. Be meticulous in your writing, and your rewriting. Just remember that other cliché, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
5) Develop an Irresistible Log Line. Before anyone can fall in love with your script, someone has to decide to read for script. The best way to ensure this happens is to first present an irresistible log line – a one- or two-line description of your project’s premise. (In this context, “premise” can be defined as where we are at the end of Act One, the moment when your story is in full motion.) In 99 percent of cases, a solid commercial logline will contain three key elements: 1) A hero with a problem he/she cannot just walk away from without suffering serious if not fatal consequences; 2) A “Wow Factor,” that is an element that is so unusual, compelling or just plain cool that it demands our attention; and 3) An element of irony, that is a problem/dilemma that is diametrically opposed to what one would naturally expect your hero to have to face. (For example, if a drug dealer is out for bloody revenge, that’s just par for the course. On the other hand, if a priest is out for bloody revenge – that’s interesting!)
6) Make a Short Film. Although there is no real commercial market for short films, such projects can serve as excellent calling cards for aspiring directors (and writers). As noted above, modern digital cameras, editing and CGI applications make it possible to shoot impressive films on a credit card. You can then burn digital copies to enter into contests, show at film festivals or submit to the industry via Hollywood’s official submission platform Greenlightmymovie.com.
7) Network. A number of organizations [e.g., The Hollywood Pitch Festival] throw regular “pitch festivals” that, for a fee, put you face-to-face with agents, producers and studio executives [Note: Make sure the event features legit companies with actual buyers and reps and not interns and assistants being paid to sit and speak to you]. As Hollywood is all about making connections, these events can be a great way to get your material in front of people who can really make a difference. If nothing else, it’s a great place to schmooze with other writers and filmmakers and expand your rolodex with Hollywood VIPs.
8) Enter Contests. There are literally dozens of annual competitions that give you opportunities to get your material in front of people who might boost your career. Winning a contest – any contest – usually comes with perks, plus enough kudos from credible sources is going to look damned impressive on a query letter. Which leads us to…
9) Target Like-Minded Agents. In Hollywood, you are invisible without an agent. But how do you get an agent if you’re unknown? Go directly to agents you know already have an affinity for the kind of material you produce. To do this: 1) Sign up with IMDB Pro (there’s a fee); 2) Look up movies that are similar to yours; 3) Look up the writers and/or directors of the movies that are similar to yours; 4) Look up who represents the writers and/or directors of the movies that are similar to yours; 5) Send those representatives – be they agents or managers – a one-page query letter that describes your project and asks if they’d like to see it with an eye toward representation. The letter should be printed – not an email – and contain just enough information to entice the reader, such as your irresistible log line and list of the contests you’ve won (if any). Oh, and don’t forget to include your contact information. That’s kind of important. You may or may never hear back from them, depending on their policy on accepting query letters so for a guaranteed response, a great alternative is to send your synopsis, short, web series, commercial, trailer via Greenlightmymovie.com.
10) Go Viral. Today, one of the most dramatic ways to generate buzz is to post a great short film on the Internet and have it watched and praised by a few million people. Granted, going viral isn’t as easy as it sounds. A lot of it has to do with timing, placement and dumb luck. But films that hit tend to hit big, and more than one viral video has landed its creator with an agent and paying work.
Like moviemaking itself, getting noticed in Hollywood is as much as art as it is a science. But a solid strategy combined with maniacal, dogged persistence boosts your odds for success considerably.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if you already have a close relative in the business. – Allen B. Ury